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WouldJew Believe #25: The Purim Edition

March 10, 2011 | by Marnie Winston-Macauley

Outrageous, odd and interesting facts like…the Jewish holiday of Nicanor Day?!

Purim is upon us! This fun-filled holiday, celebrated on the 14th of Adar (secular: March 19, 2011), of course, celebrates our salvation in ancient Persia from the evil Haman, thanks to Esther’s Yiddishe kop! So great is the joy from besting Haman-the-Jew-hating-“oy” that

I’ve devoted today’s entries to this most delightful holiday!

The Great Debate: Latke or Hamantash?


Chicken vs. egg, global warming vs. cooling, Oreos vs. Double Stuff, Joan vs. Melissa. For centuries, we Jews have cogitated, deliberated, and debated the religious and secular. And so should it also not follow, that we get to the core of yet another meritorious debate? Which is better: The LATKE or the HAMANTASH?

This mighty issue was finally given its rightful academic due in 1946 at the University of Chicago and has been argued virtually yearly. Other institutions including Harvard, MIT, and Princeton, have followed suit.

According to Ruth Fredman Cernea, in “The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate,” the event “provided a rare opportunity for faculty to reveal their hidden Jewish souls and poke fun at the high seriousness of everyday academic life." The debate is also said to have arisen from a tradition of spoofing Talmudic study during Purim. Of course, in the academic demand for primary sources, both “subjects” are gobbled afterward.

If you think this is just some lampooning foolishness, you’re right. “Nobel Laureates, PhDs, professors, philosophers, and other machers enter the fray in academic regalia to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance” to bravely get in touch with their inner Jackie Mason, which, face it, takes more raw guts that futzing with quarks. You think it’s easy to apply cosmic significance to “Haman’s ear” through applying Hegel, Freud, and Plato to the mishegoss?

Here are a few examples of such rigorous examination over the years:

*Former Princeton president, Harold Tafler Shapiro argued the hamentaschen's superiority by pointing out the epicurean significance of the "edible triangle" in light of the literary "Oedipal triangle."

*Professor Wendy Doniger claimed that hamantaschen is a womb equivalent, worshiped in early matriarchal societies.

*Professor Isaac Abella posited that "Which is Better: the Latke or the Hamantash?" is an invalid question, as it is culturally biased, implies gender specificity, exhibits geographical chauvinism, and appeals to special interests.

*Professor Allan Bloom posited a conspiracy theory involving Sigmund Freud and the Manischewitz company.

*Professor Alan Dershowitz accused the latke of increasing the United States' dependence on oil.

Personally, I feel the wrong question is being asked. Rather than comparing the proverbial “apples vs. oranges,” a far more important issue is “THE HAMANTASH: PRUNE VS. POPPY SEED.” It’s my contention that while the poppy seed more accurately resonates with our real and metaphorical issues with Haman (may all Hamans get them under their bridgework), the prune relates more authentically to our Jewish belief in the importance of eating certain foods – if you know what I mean.

A history of these debates by Ruth Fredman Cernea was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2006.


If “Festivus is for the rest of us,” according to George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld, “Jews shouldn’t ignore Nicanor!” This long forgotten holiday, occurring the day before Purim, was originally observed as a festival. But by the seventh century, it all but disappeared, replaced by the Fast of Esther. Nicanor Day marked the anniversary of Judah the Maccabee's defeat of Syrian general Nicanor in 161 B.C.E. – by beheading. Oy! If we Jews eat Haman's ears on Purim, I shudder to think what we’d be nibbling on Nicanor.


About 100 “Little Purims” are celebrated annually in various parts of the world to commemorate a time when local Jews were saved from enemies. For example:

Place/ Established Observed Event

Algiers , 1540 4th of Cheshvan saved in Spanish-Algerian wars

Baghdad, 1822 11th of Av ending Persian oppression

Belgrade, 1822 19th of Sivan saved during Turko-Serbian war

Cairo, 1524 28th of Adar saved from extermination

Castille, 1339 first of Adar saved after accusations by the King’s advisor

Prague, 1620 14th of Cheshvan saved under auspices of Emperor Ferdinand II.

Rome, 1793 first of Shevat ghetto saved from attack.

Vilna, 1794 15th of Av saved during Russo-Polish war.


Medieval Jews added humor to the elaborate plays based on Biblical stories in celebration of Purim. Clowns would lead a procession through the streets to the play itself. Four types of Yiddish comedians evolved:

Nar or Lets: pure slapstick comics

Payats: recited the Prologue, gave stage directions, or recaptured a bored audience by spouting puns or standing on their heads

Marshelik: class acts; master of ceremonies

Badkhen: sharp-witted wedding commentators

These late medieval plays became the seed corn for the modern Yiddish Theater in the late 1800s and early 1900s which, thanks largely to the work of producer, playwright, and manager, Abraham Goldfaden, were filled with hysteria -- in geshreis and laughter-- by Yiddish comedians and actors such as Sigmund Mogulesko, Aaron Lebedoff, Ludwig Satz, Max Bozyk, Michel Rosenberg, the Burstein family, Jacob Jacobs, Leo Fuchs, Henrietta Jacobson, Molly Picon, Menasha Skolnik, and Muni Weisenfreund a.k.a. Paul Muni!


Purim is the most playful of holidays, where “naughty” tricks and treats. For example, during one Purim in Israel, the national television station presented the news – upside down. Another year a major radio station announced that a huge amount of crude oil was discovered under central Tel Aviv, and a major daily paper came out with a phony front page. On Purim, a bissel carousing is “recommended” by a higher authority. Talmudic law suggests one drink enough not to know the difference between “Blessed be Mordecai” and “Cursed be Haman.” However, if you start mixing up your “blesseds and curses” you’ve had one too many!


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